By Marilyn Gleason
Special to The Aspen Times
Most Coloradans like the idea of the idea of wolves roaming the state’s forests, but the animals come at a price.
A diverse group working together to plan wolf management in Colorado tackled the finances of livestock losses at a meeting Wednesday near Glenwood Springs.
Wolves have been missing from Colorado since the mid-1930s, according to the state division of wildlife, but successful programs to reintroduce them in neighboring states point to their eventual return. Two polls in the past decade have shown that most residents would welcome them back.
In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where the animals were successfully reintroduced in the last decade, state wildlife agencies requested $2.5 million this year to cover the costs of managing the 800 wolves. That amount includes paying specialized staff, monitoring the wolves with devices such as radio collars, research and reimbursements for livestock killed by wolves.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the panel representing livestock producers, sportsmen, wildlife biologists, local governments and environmental advocates discussed various schemes for compensating livestock loss. Members debated how to pay and how much to pay, whether through the division of wildlife or a separate system.
Livestock producers and hunters worry about the economic impact wolves will have on their business.
Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, didn’t hesitate when asked what concerns her most about wolves: “Depredation. Wolves do eat livestock, so it’s an issue.”
In 2003, wolves killed 150 commercially grown animals in the northern Rockies. To compensate for those losses, producers were paid $30,000.
Conservationists are willing to pay double the value of the animal in Colorado to create goodwill among the wolf’s fiercest opponents, said Rob Edward of Sinapu, which advocates wolf reintroduction and conservation.
The panel considered compensating ranchers at rates from double all the way up to eight times livestock value.
In Colorado, the wildlife division now pays livestock producers for animals killed through its big game damage fund. With fees collected from state hunting licenses, it pays for everything from livestock preyed upon by lions and bears to hay eaten by elk.
In other states where wolves have been reintroduced, Defenders of Wildlife uses money raised through private donations to compensate ranchers for depredation.
Colorado could use a combination of both sources to pay higher than market value for livestock lost to wolves.
“By paying extra for the one that’s killed, you end up paying for the ones not found. It adds a sense of fairness,” said Gary Wockner, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Colorado.
It’s a possible solution to what Gary Skiba of the wildlife division called “the undocumented losses debate that’s been raging within the group.”
Producers claim other “ancillary” losses. Jean Stetson raises cattle in Craig with her husband, a third-generation cattle rancher. She cites livestock harassment, lower pregnancy rates and underused pastureland as additional costs. She said cows weigh less because “they’re nervous.”
Wockner said double or higher compensation is “a shorthand way of addressing those concerns.”
“It’s certainly beyond what other states are doing. It’s very progressive,” he said. “It’s probably something we could do in Colorado, and we could [likely] afford it.”
One scheme would raise funds to offset livestock killed by wolves statewide through the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which would turn the money over to the state to administer through the big game damage program.